Beyond the realm of mind-blowing spaceflight, groundbreaking satellites and stunning moon landings, the European Space Agency has one crucial, ultimate mission. It is simply to “create the most accurate and complete multidimensional map of the Milky Way.”
It’s an ambitious endeavor called Gaia, and for the last few years, ESA has been steadily making strong progress on the dream. It’s collected data about the over 1 billion stars throughout our galaxy, mapping every juicy detail about each one.
And on Monday, the team reached a massive checkpoint on the project.
Lucky for us, it also released some remarkable visuals that encompass the treasure box of cosmic secrets gathered so far. It’s formally referred to as Gaia data release 3, and it’s one that ESA calls the “most detailed Milky Way survey to date.”
In this dataset, not only can you see thousands of solar system objects like asteroids, moons and other celestial marvels within our galaxy, but you can also peruse millions of galaxies and phenomena outside the Milky Way.
When you look at the stats of this survey, it really is jaw-dropping. This new wealth of galactic intelligence includes some 6.6 million quasar candidates with redshift estimates, aka the extremely bright jets that power supermassive black holes, and probably their precise locations. It boasts 4.8 million galaxy candidates, about 813,000 multistar systems, 2.3 million hot stars and so much more.
“Gaia is a survey mission. This means that while surveying the entire sky with billions of stars multiple times, Gaia is bound to make discoveries that other more dedicated missions would miss,” Timo Prusti, project scientist for Gaia at ESA, said in a statement.
A few interstellar surprises
According to the team, among the most surprising discoveries of Gaia’s data release 3 are strange phenomena called “starquakes.”
Starquakes are pretty much exactly what they sound like – tiny motions on the surface of a star that can alter its orblike shape. Some of these quakes ESA compares to vibrations we associate with “large-scale tsunamis” on Earth.
“Starquakes teach us a lot about stars, notably their internal workings. Gaia is opening a goldmine for ‘asteroseismology’ of massive stars,” Conny Aerts of KU Leuven in Belgium, and a member of the Gaia collaboration, said in a statement.
Asteroseismology is to stars what seismology is to Earth, the study of quakes and other such wave propagation. A rundown of the starquake portion of Gaia’s new data can be seen below.
Another striking revelation was that the Gaia telescope duo – which harnesses a whopping 1-billion-pixel camera – could detect the chemical composition of the stars being studied. This one’s a big deal that could revolutionize the field of astronomy.
In short, understanding the breakdown of which exact chemicals lace stellar objects could help us decode when they were born, where they were born and what trajectory they followed after they were born. It could reveal a timeline of the universe.
And with the new Gaia data, the team found that some stars had heavier elements than others. Heavier elements are often metals, and differentiate themselves from lighter elements because they have a different nuclei structure.
But the main point here is that lighter elements, from what experts know thus far, are thought to be the only kind present during the Big Bang. In essence, this means Gaia data release 3 offers direct proof of a super diverse combination of stars in our galaxy in terms of both time and place of genesis.
“This diversity is extremely important because it tells us the story of our galaxy’s formation,” Alejandra Recio-Blanco of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in France, and a member of the Gaia collaboration, said in a statement. “It reveals the processes of migration within our galaxy and accretion from external galaxies.”
Taking this all a step further, viewing the efforts of Gaia kind of reminds us of our place in the universe. Mapping a region far, far vaster than Earth’s immediate neighborhood inevitably forces human existence into perspective.
As Recio-Blanco puts it, “It also clearly shows that our sun, and we, all belong to an ever changing system, formed thanks to the assembly of stars and gas of different origins.”
Other remarkable sightings with Gaia include over 800 binary star systems, which refer to two stars orbiting one another, in contrast to our solar system’s singular sun, and a new asteroid survey comprising 156,000 rocky bodies.
“We can’t wait for the astronomy community to dive into our new data to find out even more about our galaxy and its surroundings than we could’ve imagined,” Prusti said.
And with regard to Gaia’s own next steps, the team intends to continue toiling away at what will eventually be the pinnacle of lore for our home galaxy, the Milky Way.